Are their guns paid for with British aid?

Millions have died in the relentless civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Now the UK has been accused of inadvertently supplying weapons to rebel militia. Kate Holt and Sarah Hughes investigates
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Angela Luanda's life has been lived to the rhythms of war. Now 50, she has lived in a settlement near the town of Sake, 30km outside Goma in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, for as long as she can remember. "I've stayed here for years," she says, looking round the rough shelter, which contains all that she owns: one cooking pot with a hole in the bottom, a small wooden stool and a blanket. "I know that we (she points at her daughters and grandchildren) have outstayed our welcome but there is nowhere else to go."

Angela Landau's life has been lived to the rhythms of war. Now 50, she has lived in a settlement near the town of Sake, 30 kms outside of Goma in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo for as long as she can remember.

"I've stayed here for years," she says, looking round the rough shelter, which contains all that she owns: one cooking pot with a hole in the bottom, a small wooden stool and a blanket. "I know that we (she points at her family, her daughters and grandchildren) have outstayed our welcome but there is nowhere else to go."

Born in Massisi, a region of Eastern Congo lying 200 kilometres to the west of Sake, Angela still dreams of returning to her home but admits that this will never occur. "I can't go home, I can't stay here," she says. "I am waiting for the war to end but it still goes on."

The war Angela talks of so hesitantly is that which has ravaged the Democratic Republic of Congo for as far back as she can remember. It is a war where military commanders might change, and rival factions come and go, but poverty and violence remain; a war, which the international community is desperate to prevent, yet one which this same international community funds, however inadvertently, and which it seems increasingly powerless to stop.

It is also, more damningly, a war in which the UK continues to play a major part, due to the continued suggestion that it is a war at the least funded and, at the most, actively supported by the Rwandan government, which receives over £30 million a year from the UK through the Department of Foreign and International Development (DFID). This money has been intended to help Rwanda rebuild itself following the genocide of ten years ago in which over 800,000 people died.

When Britain first granted aid to Rwanda a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the two countries in which it was agreed that Rwanda would adhere to certain criteria to be eligible for funding. However, while some of the UK money is being used to fund education and health projects, local sources claim that a portion of it is still being used by the Rwandan government to arm rebel Congolese militia groups despite a UN weapons embargo and an agreement by the Rwandans to withdraw all troops from eastern DRC.

Angela has found what shelter she can in this uncompromising part of the DRC. The town of Sake is a desolate place, standing at the junction on the two main roads leading to the Congolese interior. It is an outpost town, close to military bases, filled with soldiers and checkpoints, the last post of civilisation before the national parks and forests begin.

Seventy families live in the settlement, just outside the town. Nearly all are widows. Many of them have been here for years and have been displaced numerous times by war. All of them say that they had been attacked by Rwandan or Interhamwe soldiers [the Interhamwe are Rwandan Hutu soldiers who cam over the border after the genocide].

The war, which these women have become victims of, first began in 1994 when Hutu extremists [Interhamwe] arrived in the Eastern DRC from neighbouring Rwanda. The army of the new Rwandan government, the RPA, followed them over the border seeking revenge. They were joined by armies from neighbouring Uganda, Zimbabwe and Angola along with numerous rebel troops. In October 2002 Rwanda agreed, following pressure from the United Nations, to withdraw their troops from the Eastern DRC.

Initially it appeared that this had been done and that, although the DRC was still in turmoil, this violence was now largely down to an internal struggle between various militia groups. But on 21 July events took a darker turn as a UN-backed group of experts issued a report to the Security Council stating that Rwanda continues to support dissident military leaders within the eastern DRC and is violating the weapons embargo against militia groups in that area "both directly and indirectly". The report confirms previous allegations, which NGO's and human rights' groups have been making for over two years. And the evidence it offers concerning Rwanda's on-going presence in the DRC is set to cause considerable embarrassment to the British government.

This UN report claims that shortly after a confrontation in early June in the town of Bukavu, between the national Armed Forces of the DRC (FARDC) and the rebel troops of Colonel Jules Mutebutsi, a former RCD-Goma commander, "the UN group travelled in two teams at different times to the Rwandan border area of Cyangugu and directly witnessed and documented Rwanda's non-compliance with the sanctions regime." The report goes on to paint a picture of Rwandan-backed rebel forces press-ganging young men from the Internationally Displaced Peoples (IDP) camps, which surround the area or offering them the equivalent of $100 or mobile phones to join Colonel Mutebutsi's forces in Kamanyola.

Rwanda itself continues to insist that it is simply protecting its own borders. "The UN report side-steps the problem of Rwandan enemy forces operating in Congo," said Protais Mitali, the Rwandan Minister for Regional Cooperation. "Playing down the security threat posed by these forces is unfair and biased." But last Monday MONUC troops near Bukavu arrested 25 Rwandan soldiers who claimed to be members of The Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR) and refused to give up their weapons or explain why they were in the DRC.

Human Rights Watch, which has monitored the relationship between Rwanda and DRC for some years, backs up the UN allegations. Their most recent report into events in Bukavu states: "Rwanda has been the chief supporter of the RCD-Goma since the movement began its rebellion against the Congolese government in 1998. In October 2002, Rwanda withdrew its troops from DRC, but reports persist about the continued involvement of Rwandan forces in eastern DRC. On April 21 2004 a MONUC patrol in North Kivu was stopped by 400 Rwandan soldiers and asked to withdraw to its base. Rwanda has denied the presence of its troops in eastern DRC." The HRW report, published in June, additionally says that local sources claimed to recognise commanders from the previous Rwandan occupation and to distinguish vehicles, weapons and uniforms as those of the Rwandan army.

"I actually think that we could have been stronger in our statements about the Rwandan presence in eastern DRC," says Julianna Kippenberg of the African Division of Human Rights Watch. "We have continued reports from ground level that suggest that, at the very least, Rwanda continues to back the RCD-Goma forces."

Her colleague, Anneke Woudenberg, agrees. "It does seem likely that there is some form of Rwandan involvement within the eastern DRC," she says. "I believe that the UK government needs to influence the Rwandan government, and I think that in the past they have not used their influence as much as they could have done. They need to be more vocal."

Part of the problem appears to be that it is extremely difficult for DFID to track exactly where the money they give to Rwanda is being spent. Two years ago an internal memo stated the need for there to be more accountability of where DFID money is spent in Rwanda and admitted: "It is difficult to square many aspects of Rwanda's involvement in the Congo with its commitment under the Memorandum to resolve disputes peacefully and to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other states."

"Rwanda has made extraordinary progress since 1994, despite immense challenges," says Hilary Benn, International Development Secretary , when asked why nothing has been done about investigating where this money goes. "We believe UK support was essential for Rwanda to manage the transition from conflict to peace, and that we need to continue our long-term assistance for stability and poverty reduction in the region. We monitor how our money is spent through scrutiny of the Government's strategic framework, budget allocation and management, and financial management. We conduct regular checks to ensure that poverty reduction is at the centre of the Government's strategic framework and budget allocations, and that the financial management procedures are adequate for us to be able to account for our funds."

Yet other countries remain less convinced that Rwanda is using its funds correctly. Since 2002, Ireland and Denmark have withdrawn their aid, while Belgium, the US and the Netherlands provide only reduced support due to concerns over the misuse of funds. Sweden is one of the only countries who continues to provide budget support alongside the UK.

But a spokesperson for the Foreign Office admitted that if Rwandan involvement in the eastern DRC were proved then they would have to reconsider the UK's position.

"So far we have seen no evidence that proves that Rwanda is funding militia groups within DRC," the spokesperson said. "We were concerned by reports of Rwandan involvement during the Bukavu crisis in May-June 2004," they said before adding: "The United Nations Mission in DRC could not confirm these reports, and the Rwandan Government categorically denied them. We have pressed Presidents Joseph Kabila (of the DRC) and Paul Kagame (of Rwanda) to establish a Joint Verification Mechanism to investigate such allegations."

Yet the UN report of 21 July clearly states that Monuc forces are concerned over Rwanda's failure to comply with the 2002 weapons embargo, while in July 2003 Hilary Benn told the House of Commons: "The UK version is that Rwanda withdrew its troops in October 2002, but Rwanda is certainly concerned that the Disarmament, Demobilisation, Repatriation, Reintegration and Resettlement (DDRRR) process in the DRC is followed through and has continued security concerns, so have continued some actions by proxy. The truth is that better intelligence is needed by all sides."

Yet while Whitehall debates and worries a chain has been set in place. It is a chain that begins with the release of aid to Rwanda by the UK, and ends with a shy ten year old girl with haunting eyes called Honorene sitting in a shelter for abused women and children in Goma.

Honorene was visiting her aunt in Bukavu when the soldiers arrived in June. "Seven soldiers arrived in my aunt's house and looted it," she says quietly. "I ran outside to the toilet in the back and hid but another soldier came and found me there. He raped me then another one came and did the same. I was really scared and I couldn't find my aunt. I heard about a place in Goma where there was a woman who would help me so I went to the port in Bukavu and begged for enough money to come to Goma and found her." Honorene now lives at this shelter in Goma. She seems almost inured to the sexual violence she has seen, reeling off a litany of horror with a deadened expression and an unnatural calm.

Ann McKechin, the deputy chairman of the UK's All Parties Parliamentary Committee on the Great Lakes region, admitted that there was still a great deal to be done concerning the on-going violence in the DRC.

"There is no doubt that there are terrible levels of sexual violence being perpetrated against women and children," she says. "It is important for the international community to continue to monitor the situation." Despite this, McKechin stresses that it is often hard to discover exactly who is involved in perpetrating this violence. "The trouble with the situation between Rwanda and the DRC is that there is a level of confusion. Often people will insist that it was Rwandan soldiers who attacked them and yet there is no clear evidence of that. I think that while questions must be asked of the Rwandan government it is also important to consider that Rwanda's own position is a delicate one, and that occasionally people might insist that those who attacked them were Rwandan when this is not the case."

McKechin also praises the decision by the International Criminal Court (ICC) to begin investigating war crimes within the DRC. "I think this will cause quite a stir," she says. "It has been suggested that it will not simply be internal forces who face prosecution, but also could include those from any country who have participated in the war. It is important that the international community sends out a clear message concerning the many crimes, both sexual and violent, which have taken place over the past few years in the DRC." That could include soldiers from both Rwanda and Uganda insist Human Rights Watch. Richard Dicker, director of the organisation*s International Justice Programme, said in a recent statement: *We urge Luis Moreno Ocampo, the ICC prosecutor, to follow the trail of criminality across the border and investigate not only Congolese warlords but their foreign backers as well.

With this investigation the Prosecutor has the chance to send a clear message across the Great Lakes Region that impunity for these horrific crimes is coming to an end.* It is a message that will be welcomed by Medicins San Frontiers (MSF), one of the largest NGO*s working in Eastern Congo. For MSF the situation is not about the machinations of government and the wheels of aid, important though they might be, it is about the daily problems of dealing with a flood of women and girls, displaced, abused and abandoned.

Damian Lilly who works for MSF in Goma, believes that the situation could get worse. *We still see raped women in our clinics daily,* he said.

*Moreover rape has been a feature of the recent fighting in the DRC in the last couple of months suggesting that the situation has not really improved.* Lilly added that the abuse was so endemic it was hard to pin the blame on any one group. *According to the victims MSF speaks to, all military groups active in the DRC (whether Congolese or foreign) are implicated in sexual violence yet each one blames the other. When foreign soldiers commit these crimes it is even more difficult to track them down and prosecute because they will return to their own country.* For Edward Kakande, the programme coordinator in Goma for NGO Action Aid who support the shelter where Honorene now lives, the message is clear:

something has to be done for these women. *We have all heard that rape is widespread,* he said. *But I had no idea that women and girls such as Honorene had been subject to such levels of abuse and humiliation. That they have been rejected by their families and forced to live in these crowded shelters is even worse.* In Britain DFID continues to juggle its budgets and consider where to send aid. In America the UN reads the countless reports stating that Rwandan soldiers are in the DRC. In Rwanda itself the government continues to insist that it is under pressure from DRC troops and simply guarding its borders.

In the Congo, Angela Luanda sits on her stool in her barren shelter, her plastic sheeting flapping with the wind. "Food and sleep that's what I want most for me and my grandchildren," she says. "I just want to be safe, somewhere other than here."

Comments